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Sydney Lea, winner of the 2021 Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, on poetry & the pandemic

A bearded man with white hair, poet Sydney Lea, looks to the left of the picture while standing on front of a green forested background.
Sydney Lea, Courtesy
Poet Sydney Lea won the 2021 Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Vermont Arts Council.

Sydney Lea is among the most celebrated artists in Green Mountain State history: a former Vermont Poet Laureate, author of more than a dozen published volumes of verse and a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Now he’s added another accolade he says is especially close to his heart: winner of the 2021 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Awarded by the Vermont Art's Council, it is reserved for artists both distinguished in their field, and who have had a profound impact on the state of Vermont.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Sydney Lea, a longtime resident of Newbury, about getting the award and how the pandemic has affected his poetry. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sydney Lea: It was a little bit like, “pinch me.” I continue to feel — though my wife upbraids me for this — I feel a little bit like an imposter. But I'll take it. I'm happy. I'm delighted, and honored to have it.

Mitch Wertlieb: There were only two other poets on this list — Galway Kinnell and Hayden Carruth — both wonderful poets ...

Oh, terrific.

... it makes me wonder if you feel that, sometimes, poetry maybe gets overlooked as a genre in the arts? Is it the kind of thing where, maybe, you're used to that, having been a poet for so many years. How do you feel about poetry, overall, getting its due?

You know, it's really always been a minority art, at least from mid-19th century on. [Robert] Frost was really the exception.

Galway Kinnell was a much-feted poet, for example, but I suspect that the first three tiers of Fenway Park on opening day would constitute a bigger group of people than his readership.

So, if one’s decided to become a poet for the fame, women and money — or fame, men and money, as the case may be — they're really hoeing the wrong row, it seems to me. I resigned myself to that a long, long time ago, you know, I wanted to be a little bit more ambitious for the work than for its promotion. And I'm perfectly happy with that.

"... I wanted to be a little bit more ambitious for the work than for its promotion. And I'm perfectly happy with that.
Sydney Lea, poet

Let me ask about what it's been like for you writing — if you have been writing — in this past almost two years now, since the pandemic has hit. Has it impacted your writing process at all?

Well, I think it's probably the biggest bursts of writing I've ever engaged in, in my life. I'm very happily married, thank God, because really, there was not a whole lot else to do other than household chores, some outside yard work, and that kind of thing.

So, I have completed one new book of poems, completed a novel I've been fussing with for a number of years, and I wrote a 14-poem sequence called Animate Objects, in which I just looked at objects around the house — an old clock, an old duck decoy, what have you — and I tried to write these poems that told the stories that those evoked, once I meditated on them a bit.

This burst of writing you've had, has the pandemic affected the kind of poems you're writing? You know, are they more somber? Or are they more serious?

Well, you know, it would have been impossible to sit down and write anything, it seems to me, in this context, without being somehow on the page aware of this plague, that we're all still fighting with, alas.

And it's coalescence with the exit from the presidency of a man whose opinions I loathe has highly affected my poetry, too. I've tended not to be a political poet in any way, and I'm not, in an overt way, really, in this new book. But again, especially in light of that Jan. 6 disaster, very hard to write a poem without some sense that we're in a very, very dangerous place in our history, perhaps as dangerous as the one leading up to the Civil War, perish the thought.

So, they may be more somber, in some respects, but they're more political, at least in an oblique way, than anything I've done before.

That kind of anticipates my next question. I mean, what is the function of poetry in times of crisis?

I think there are many more effective tools for social change and social justice. Better to get out in the streets, register voters, participate in demonstrations, contribute to worthy causes, and so on.

The trouble with overt political poetry, for me — not that there hasn't been some great stuff written, for example, by Pablo Neruda — but the trouble with political poetry is that, when you start a poem, having to do with your politics, you already know what they are. You know how the poem is going to end, in a sense. So, there's no thrill of discovery in the process of writing. And in the process of writing, I discover what I didn't know was on my mind. I discover connections which I didn't know were there. And I unearth knowledge that I didn't know I knew.

You've been a resident of Newbury, Vermont for decades now, I guess ...

Yes, yeah.

What's it meant to you, to create so much of your work there?

I love the town of Newbury. I have kept moving north of whatever friend of mine called the “Volvo Line” for some time now.

You know, we use this word “diversity” rather casually, and surely Newbury is not very diverse in a racial or ethnic sense. But unlike a lot of my leftish Manhattan or San Francisco friends, I encounter people — as they say, to use the cliché — from "all walks of life," every day.

From my fabulous and much-missed, lately, deceased 97-year-old neighbor who's umpteenth generation Vermont, to the president of the local bank, and everything in between.

And I think that one problem with a lot of poetry in an age of what I call “creeping MFA-ism,” is that people get together with other people who are like them, and like-minded, and they assume that, somehow, other people are thinking the same way they do.

I remember when I moved to Newbury, almost 40 years ago, that same old neighbor, he says, "I hear you're a writer," and I said,
"Yeah." He says, "Well, I'm ain’t going to read anything you ever wrote. I like to read Louis L'Amour, and once you get done reading him, you don't want to read nobody else."

So, you know, there is a whole different contingent out there who doesn't really care much whether I'm writing a lyric or narrative poetry, and I like that check on the self-absorption that poets can sometime fall into.

Well, Sydney Lea, would you mind sharing one of your poems with us? It can be a recent one or an older one. I would love to hear some of your poetry.

Well, I think I’ll read up an older one. It was the first poem that was part of a joint venture with the first Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont, the genius James Kochalka.

This one is called "Garnett And Leon In December."

Garnett And Leon In December

Garnett’s wrinkles would hold a week

of rain. His knuckles are small white onions.

Each yarn of each sounds like farewell

here in December. Afternoon like night

when Garnett feeds chickens

he hears more than sees them.

Leon clenches his pipe and puffs

with a maul to his woodpile

at the bottom of which

I long to imagine a dark iron spike

in a log which the fabled Connecticut River-drivers

followed downstream till it ended here.

Stars grow sharp to announce the cold.

The cold.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Leon inhales.

And studies the wood.

Garnett’s face could hold the flood.

Sydney Lea shared several other poems with VPR, which you can read and/or listen to below.

Affirmation

Sydney Lea reads from "Affirmation"

We saw the wound in the woodshed’s sheathing,
which soon explained the midnight sound
that had snapped the two of us out of sleeping.
Our old dog bayed like a horror film hound.

A chipmunk or squirrel had made a hole
for winter behind a tier of wood
we hadn’t burned, and to wait out the cold,
had filled it with seed. So there I stood,

in barnyard boots and underdrawers,
to untangle the tale. Her den-time past,
a bear had ripped away three boards
and rifled the rodent’s paltry cache.

There were her tracks. Who would have thought?
Compared to the unpredictable stories
nature provides, the ones we concoct
prove for the most part ordinary.

So plain a perception gave me pause.
Laying my lust for invention aside,
I studied the gash the bear had clawed.
She allowed me, if I squinted my eyes,

to turn the ruin into a flower,
an orange-rimmed set of petals arrayed
around their dark interiors. Now–
would such indulgence last a day?–

I granted the bear the easy judgment
I’d offer a child, who, perhaps knowing better,
defies the civilized world’s proscriptions,
making off with something she considers

essential to sustenance– or pleasure.

Checkout

Sydney Lea reads from "Checkout"

Just as some self-styled seer
might claim to interpret a litter of tea leaves,
I presume to read a life
by what this old fellow lifts from his cart.
How dare I? And yet I do.
Dorito chips dyed a strange orange hue;
a six-pack of “Angry Orchard,”
hard cider cans that bear the image
of someone his age, but scowling.
It doesn’t bear any resemblance at all
to the zesty liquid that stood
in wooden barrels in Jersey-filled barns,
back when farms here were small.

Now he’s unloading a little tin
of so-called Vienna sausage,
which were at one time known in our north
as “log-haulers,” somehow favored
by woodland teamsters who deftly drove
their strapping Belgians on skid roads.
I get a sudden odor, unpleasant,
that seeps from the waffled garment
that shows through an inch-long rent below
his flannel shirt’s frayed collar.
Not the whiff of lumber or cattle. The shirt
is so worn it shows nothing a person
could rightly specify as a color.

This is the lane with the sign,
14 Articles or Fewer.
He seems reduced to fewer.
Canned beets; a box of powdered doughnuts;
grape jelly; instant pudding.
I wonder what earthly blending
of these might make anyone’s meal?
I cradle the weight of the grass-fed beef
I’ll soon lay down on the belt.
It’s a heavy weight. Blood stains the paper.
Who hammered the steer to its knees?
Abbatoir workers must work to sustain
their apathy through the slaughter.

A folded cardboard shim will fit
under a leg of the table
so as to keep it more or less steady
on his trailer’s canted floor.
What show is that on the old TV?
I don’t know. Neither does he.
No photographs in view. He builds
a pyramid of cans
by his plate. If ever there were children,
they’re gone; likewise his wife.
The rail-thin girl at the checkout counter,
diplomatic, clears her throat
so that I look up. He’s left.

How did he walk, I wonder?

My Wife's Back

Sydney Lea reads from "My Wife's Back"

All naked but for a strap, it traps my gaze
As we paddle: the dear familiar nubs
Of spine-bone punctuating that sun-warmed swath,

The slender muscles that trouble the same sweet surface.
We’ve watched and smiled as green herons flushed
And hopped ahead at every bend, and we’ve looked up

At a redtail tracing open script on a sky
So clear and deep we might believe
It’s autumn, no matter it’s August still. Another fall

Will be on us before we know it. Of course we adore
That commotion of color, but it seems to come
Again as soon as it’s gone away. They all do now.

We’re neither young anymore, to put matters plainly.
My love for you over forrty years
Extends in all directions, but now to your back as we drift

And paddle down the tranquil Connecticut River.
We’ve seen a mink scratch fleas on a mudflat.
We’ve seen an osprey start to dive but seeing us,

Think better of it. Two phoebes wagged on an ash limb.
Your torso is long. I can’t see your legs
But they’re longer, I know. Phoebe, osprey, heron, hawk:

Marvels under Black Mountain, but I am fixed
On your back, indifferent to other wonders:
Bright minnows that flared in the shallows,

the gleam off that poor mink’s coat,
even the fleas in its fur, the various birds
–the lust of creatures just to survive.

But I watch your back. Never have I wished more not to die.

Recession

Sydney Lea reads from "Recession"

A grotesquerie for so long we all ignored it:
The mammoth plastic Santa lighting up
On the Quik-Stop’s roof, presiding over pumps
That gleamed and gushed in the tarmac lot below it.

Out back, with pumps of their own, the muttering diesels.
And we, for the most part ordinary folks,
Took all for granted: the idling semis’ smoke,
The fuel that streamed into our tanks, above all

Our livelihoods. We stepped indoors to talk
With friends, shared coffee, read the local paper,
Heavy with news of hard times now. We shiver.
Our afternoons are gone. At five o’clock

-- Once we gave the matter little thought --
Our Santa Claus no longer flares with light.

Spring Poem in a Time of Plague

Sydney Lea reads from "Spring Poem in a Time of Plague"

Last night, our pond reclaimed a foot from its ice.
New water winks dark green, and redwings shriek
From reed and shrub. It’s good to be out. Two boys
Hike by at social distance. Each young leaf

Twitches like a springtime chipmunk’s ear.
The road’s mud grasps at boot-soles while I walk
The other way. On a tree I detect the scar
Of an errant winter driver. I catch the talk

Of these school kids out of school– classmates, admired
Or not (all girls are otherwise), the names
Of games they can’t play now. The runt defers
To his big companion, who, unprompted, screams

Contempt at all restrictions. They pass from hearing.
I note an earthworm turning proper pink.
Soon the ambient landscape will be wearing
Seasonal raiment: nodding grass and dank,

Deep moss, spare overlay of meadow flowers.
But I’ve lived enough to expect odd snow-squalls, slapped
To anger by nasty winds. We’ll see more hours
In which we’re sealed in rooms foursquare and flat.

We’ll dream perhaps of the past, or pray for the future
When a softer time will come– and go– and mist
Will rise from pond and outlet brook to wander
Down to a busy playground. Sun once kissed

My playful body. Sweet bijoux of sweat
Rose into uninfected morning’s odor.
Who knew that what our elders labeled older
Meant this strange state? Not then but then not yet.

The Rural Sublime

Sydney Lea reads from "The Rural Sublime"

…the only sensible impression left is, "I am nothing!"

–Coleridge

Farmwives conjure elaborate quilts.
Woodworkers busy themselves at their stations.
No shortage of craftspeople here, to be sure,
but however deft these artisans,
their work’s no balm for my sudden unease.
Today I’ve sampled maple balls
and poutine, and from provisory bleachers,
heard the roars of the Tractor Pull,
and outside of airplanes I couldn’t see,
the gunmetal clouds dropping ever downward.

I’m at the Tunbridge World’s Fair,
set in a hamlet from picture postcards.
I’ve been awed by oxen with legs so long
and stout that if my eyes didn’t wander
to mammoth heads (we’re all so small)
I’d imagine black-and-white trunks of trees–
the Holsteins– and winey red– the Herefords.
There’s a scattering too of paler breeds
like Brahma or Charolais. All wonders.

Wonders everywhere in fact:
100-pound Hubbard squashes and pumpkins,
Brobdignagian potbelly hogs–
“Kevin Bacon,” “Spamela Anderson,”
“Tyrone the Terrible”– that plod through the final
Pig Race, intent on the cookie reward.
Though I feel the weather grow ever grimmer,
the announcer rattles his comic words
at the crowd, consisting mostly of parents
with enthusiastic sons and daughters.

Is any gripped by nameless fears
like me? I shuddered less when leaning
from a Ferris Wheel car or in the wild orbits
of the Tilt-a-Whirl and Whizzer Demon
than when standing right here. Pink cotton candy
cones look like torches, puny beacons
in evanescing afternoon.
The ozone scent of imminent lightning
fills the air like the whiff of corn dogs,
funnel cake, hush puppies frying.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

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